Shagai

After the long Tsagaan Sar break, all schools have a “wear your deel to school day.”

A deel, if you remember, is Mongolia’s traditional clothing that is worn in the countryside and during holidays such as Tsagaan Sar during the winter and Nadaam during the summer.

There is nothing more adorable then seeing small children in their deels. At my school, there were more younger students strutting about in their deels then the older high school students.

 

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Group photo with my 5th grade class.

 

Students also played shagai, an ankle bone game.

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When you toss the ankle bones, the four shagai positions are from left to right: camel, horse, sheep, and goat.

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This game is called “Horse Race” and can last for a very long time.

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Another game students played is when you throw an ankle bone into the air and with the same hand try to swipe up as many ankle bones from the floor before you catch the falling ankle bone. If you successfully catch the ankle bone, you keep the ankle bones you swiped.

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A frosty January

1 January 2016:

I spent 8 hours standing on my feet as a hostess at Shaw’s Crab House counting down the hours while listening to Michael Buble Christmas music on loop.

1 January 2017:

I had a winter picnic out in the Mongolian countryside.

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Blue and white were the only colors I could see for miles across the Mongolian steppe, speckled occasionally with brown and black horses. It was refreshing to not see telephone wires marring the view, to be free of constant pollution, and to not hear the sound of traffic.

With Adiya, one of my counterparts, and her family, we first visited a horse monument. Enclosed within a square of stupas are 10 large horse statues. All are in memory of my aimag’s best race horses.

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After our walk around, we got back into the car and drove on. We drove straight up the main – and only paved road – for 20 minutes when suddenly, the car took an immediate left off of the road and onto a trail that is only visible to the Mongolian eye. We bumped our way over the steppe closer toward the hills until the car finally came to a halt in the middle of the snowy field. It was here on untouched snow where we had our picnic.

Blankets were laid out, milk tea was poured, and soup was prepared on a little traveling stove. We stayed out there until our fingers and toes lost all feeling.

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In addition to this month, I turned 24. I spent the day time at an English teacher’s seminar hosted by the State Department. Peace Corps Volunteers were there as a formality but otherwise sat in the back with our computers. In the evening, I had dinner and cake with my site mates and two counterparts. But the best part of the day was having my family, including my two grandmothers in Sweden and Scotland, calling my phone with birthday messages.

More January highlights:

  • Our aimag had a two-week winter break. At first I wondered what I would do during that time and regretting not booking a flight to a beach somewhere but I had a comfortable and lazy break. I read “Me Before You,” (book is way better than the movie) and “After You,” (super depressing), and I bought an oven.
  • I’m creating a video for a Peace Corps challenge. The theme is hospitality. Adiya took me to her sister’s ger to shoot video and I was invited over to my neighbor’s apartment. True to their hospitable nature, I have been eating so much buuz and drinking an incredible amount of milk tea for this video.
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Gers are bigger than they look. With a stove in the middle, this ger has a TV, two beds, a wardrobe, and a washing machine.
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When I met my friend Zulka, sitting on my right, she said that her dream was to become fluent in English and to study in Australia. After helping her with her student exchange essay and preparing her for her speech, she has been accepted to study abroad in  Luxembourg. She makes her family proud by being the first person from her family to travel abroad.
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A plate of buuz, steamed dumplings.
  • To make lesson planning more efficient, I create a monthly sign up sheet. Teachers are accountable for showing up after signing their name and available time for all to see. Now I’m teaching more classes except when something silly happens. The door to class 10A was jammed shut and nobody could open it. The students were inside while I was in the hallway. Eventually, the door had to be splintered and ripped off its hinges.
  • January was one of the coldest months. For one week we had a Siberian winter. I thought my face was going to crack. I stayed inside as much as humanly possible watching Brooklyn 99, the Gilmore Girls revival, and a very long movie, “Palm Trees in the Snow.”
  • Mongolia’s biggest holiday is swiftly approaching – Tsagaan Sar, Mongolia’s lunar New Year celebration. The market is crowded with people shopping for presents, food, and new deels. Homes are being scrubbed clean for families and friends who will invade. My counterparts have contributed to buying a winter deel for me. I’m building the anticpation by waiting until the holiday to post a picture of my deel in all its glory.

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Happy New Year

Шинэ жилийн мэнд хүргэе!

First holidays abroad and I must admit, it was tough on me. There were just too many Buchanan traditions I missed out on that I craved all throughout December such as seeing our Swedish Christmas tomtes decorating our home; decorating the Christmas tree; baking Swedish gingerbread cookies while munching on the dough; walking amongst all the twinkling lights that crown Chicago; eating a smorgasbord for dinner; driving to the airport at midnight with my dad to pick up my brother; and pestering my dad with my incessant chatter that makes him wish my brothers came home more often.

But Peace Corps Volunteers must adapt to new changes in their lives. So I made the most of my new situation. Just like in America, all stores in my aimag were decorated for Christmas and New Year’s. The government square had a large Christmas tree in the center. In the market, small Christmas trees were being sold along with lights, ornaments, little Santa jackets, and ribbons. I played Christmas music in the mornings and plugged my Christmas lights in every night.

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 My school held a Christmas/New Year concert in the sports hall. Each grade decorated a small Christmas tree that were lined up alongside the stage. Students sang and danced and Santa gave out presents to the best students. The Russian Santa isn’t a jolly, fat, and red suited fella we’re used to but is tall, thin, and dresses all in white.

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I also attended the Young Teachers Christmas (Shinjil) party with my site mate, Jenni. The hall was decorated with snowflakes hanging from the ceiling, a Christmas tree was flashing away in a corner, banners saying “Merry Christmas” hung on the walls, Santa made an appearance, and women wore glittery dresses. At seeing the dresses, it felt like I had been transported back to high school prom while simultaneously feeling under dressed. Yet, the real Christmas miracle was having fresh pineapple delivered to our table. My first taste of pineapple in 6 months.  

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During IST, Peace Corps gave each aimag a turkey. Having never prepared a turkey before, I did extensive research before undertaking the task. What did I come to realize? That a big turkey requires a big pot that requires a large refrigerator. A counterpart supplied me with the pot but the pot barely managed to get into my tiny fridge. I was lying in bed when I heard a thumping sound but I thought it was the children next door to me. The thump came again and then I remembered that a massive pot filled to the rim with salt water in which a turkey was floating in was in my fridge. I caught the pot before the entire shelf came crashing down. My Friday night was spent duct taping my shelf back up and cutting up the turkey into many pieces to be put into a smaller pot. There was turkey blood everywhere.

Nevertheless, our Christmas Eve feast was a success with the turkey, roasted potatoes and carrots, and cinnamon rolls. On Christmas, we prepared a brunch that included blueberry scones and strawberries. I chatted with my family and opened my Christmas packages my parents sent.  It was a Christmas spent with my sitemates who become like family during your service. 

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For New Year’s Eve, my counterpart invited me to her home. She had spent two hours the day before preparing buuz, Mongolian steamed dumplings. I feasted on the most delicious buuz I’ve ever had. At midnight, 2017 swept in as little fireworks popped in the sky.  

What’s my New Year resolution? I don’t really have one except to continue my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

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To future Peace Corps Volunteers

Packing for two-years of your life is tough. I can still vividly remember back in May 2016 when I spent all week in my basement attempting to sort out all my stuff. Clothes were strewn everywhere and piles of miscellaneous were scattered all over the place. I even had my mom come down and I would hold up a t-shirt or a dress and ask, “Yes? No? Maybe?” In the airports, people went around me like I was a rock in a stream. No one wanted to mess with me as I struggled with over a hundred pounds.

There is no right or wrong answers when it comes to packing. Bring what you think is necessary and important for you. Packing lists you find online only proved to be a little helpful for me. Thus, you will read a snippet of what I packed to avoid a nervous breakdown.

There is not much out there about Mongolia. When  standing in the travel section in a bookstore, there were 30 books about China, 15 about Japan, and 1 – if you’re lucky – about Mongolia. But guess what? Mongolia pretty much has everything! During your first three months of service, you will be under a travel ban but Peace Corps does give permission if you need to go to UB for something crucial such as winter clothes or a broken computer. If you live in a small soum, you can travel to your local aimeg.

Here’s what I brought with me to Mongolia. I will not give quantities because if you want to go ahead and bring 10 black t-shirts or a lot of dresses, bring 10 black t-shirts and a lot of dresses. Pack your style and prepare to be a little scruffy.

Some tips:

  • Mongolians don’t care if you re-wear the same outfit.
  • Pack what you can be versatile with. For example, I have a floral dress from Forever 21. I can tuck it into my skirts, I wear long-sleeve under armor underneath when it’s cold, and I can wear it with leggings. Plus, it washes and dries quickly.
  • More than half of you will be washing your clothes in a bucket so don’t bring material that can easily get destroyed.
  • Pack an equal amount of professional and casual clothes.
  • Pack a cardigan. Women in Mongolia don’t show off their shoulders especially at work. Even at parties, most women wear dresses that cover their shoulders. You won’t get arrested for indecency. It’s just how it is and you’ll avoid a light scolding during your first week.
  • If your computer is over 6 years old, buy a new one but not the latest Apple computer. You will use your computer a lot and you don’t want your computer to suddenly break. I have Microsoft Windows 10.
  • Height matters. I am 6 feet tall with size 10 feet. Therefore, I had to pack all my shoes: running shoes, walking shoes, flats, sandals, winter boots, and my leather boots. If you are short with small feet, you will be luckier in the clothing and shoe department.
  • When you land in Mongolia, you will have no time to go shopping. Then when you arrive at your training site, your site might not have what you need. So, pack extra deodorant, a big bottle of lotion, a big tube of toothpaste, underwear, etc..
  • At your permanent site, your counterparts will take you out shopping for whatever you might need. It’s not necessary to pack pots, pans, forks,  spoons, a sewing kit, a tent, etc..
  • Whatever it is that you absolutely can’t find, your family can send you a package.  

What am I most grateful for?

  • My kindle. Small with a battery that lasts forever, it is my favorite possession.
  • My hard drive. Pack two – at least 1 TB –  and have the other as backup. Upload movies and shows to it. If you don’t know how to do that kind of stuff like me, you can have media exchanges with other volunteers. You will be my best friend if you come with the latest movies and shows. Also, back up your computer.
  • My camera.
  • My pillow and two pillowcases. Mongolians don’t use pillows and if they do, it’s packed with sand or material found in beanie babies. You also can’t find pillow cases.
  • Special items from home. A family calendar, a small photo album, my Chicago Blackhawks t-shirt, my flannel shirt, a journal, many types of teas, cards friends and family wrote to me, and comfy pants.
  • My winter gear. I packed my winter coat, a lot of under amour, thick socks, winter boots, and my hat. Winter will hit you fast and you don’t want to be caught off guard without a coat.
  • Chapstick.
  • My running shorts. Summers get very hot and I wore my shorts every day outside of school during training. Even now when my apartment gets very hot, I wear my shorts.

What do I have that is necessary?

  • A headlamp. Even though I live in an apartment, I have had power outages.
  • An external power charger. During the long power outages, you still have something to charge your items with.
  • Duct tape and clear scotch tape to fix all your problems.
  • A pocket knife.
  • Lotion. Lotion is expensive and most lotion has chemicals like bleach in it.
  • Stickers. Students love stickers! If you have trouble motivating students to do their work, pull out your stickers. I brought stickers for all seasons and holidays.
  • Extra ear buds.
  • Spices, especially cinnamon.

What did my parents send in care packages?

  • School supplies like flash cards, larger notebooks, folders, more pens and pencils, and a map of the United States to show students.
  • More chapstick, tea, and lotion.
  • A few more casual t-shirts and comfy pants.
  • Starbursts, gummy bears, trail mix, and Nature Valley bars.
  • Extra chargers for when mine mysteriously disappeared or died.
  • DVDs for fun.

What do I wish I could have packed but had no space for?

  • A smaller sleeping bag. Peace Corps gives you a sleeping bag but it’s enormous and weighs a ton. It just isn’t possible to lug it around with you when traveling.
  • More sweaters. I thought, “Hey, I can just buy some,” but that’s not true. Cashmere sweaters – while significantly cheaper in Mongolia compared to in America – are still expensive on a Peace Corps budget and most sweaters I find unflattering.
  • A more glamorous dress for teacher and holiday parties. At a Christmas party, it felt like I was at my high school prom.

What will Peace Corps give you?

  • A cell phone.
  • A sleeping bag.
  • A plug adapter with six outlets.
  • A bug net.
  • A medical kit but I recommend packing extra vitamins and Airborne.
  • A water filter.

What was I able to buy in Mongolia?

  • A morning robe.
  • A cardigan.
  • A wool dress.
  • A cashmere scarf.
  • Camel socks and camel leggings.

Don’t change your style while packing. If you prefer dresses over pants, pack your dresses. If you like nail polish, pack your nail polish. Don’t pack what you would never catch yourself wearing in the States. The same for hobbies. If you have never knitted a thing in your life, don’t pack up extra space with items you might never use. If you think you can sacrifice your winter coat for something else more important, go for it. If you have never kept a journal, don’t feel compelled to bring a journal. If you love coffee, bring a  french press. If you like wearing high heels, bring your best pair.

So, relax, breathe, and remember, you are all in the same boat. You’ll have funny stories to retail. Most of all, don’t freak out and compare what you are packing to somebody else’s. All will be well.

Feel free to ask any questions.